With record high temperatures hitting the foothills there is no denying that summer is definitely in full swing. With the recent heat wave, locals are traveling to bodies of water in droves searching for relief. One of the more popular destinations is undeniably the coast, but the beautiful California coastline recently experienced a tragedy.
On May 19, 2015, the ocean received another unwelcomed visitor known as the Refugio Oil Spill. The ruptured pipeline spewed between 20,000 and 100,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean in Santa Barbara County (the total amount of oil is still under investigation). This is a relatively small scale spill, especially when compared to the millions of gallons of oil spilled in Santa Barbara in 1969. However, an oil spill of any magnitude can have profound effects on the ecological community. The Refugio Spill killed nearly 300 birds and mammals (that officials know of) and impacted several marine protected areas. It also occurred on the Gaviota Coastline which is known for its biodiversity and may have caused immeasurable damage.
To clean up an oil spill, the Coast Guard and the EPA deploy workers to begin booming and skimming the area. Booms are floating barriers which are used to keep the oil contained and skimmers are devices, including boats, which remove the oil from the waters’ surface. Unfortunately, due to the surface tension of water and the ocean currents, oil moves quickly and often disperses far from the spill site. This is why it is crucial to act quickly and consult experts, such as UCSB’s Dr. Igor Mezic, who use computer models to depict the oil’s trajectory. Another method used to clean up oil spills is chemical herders.
Chemical herders have been around since the 1970s and are a somewhat controversial tactic for cleaning up oil spills. Chemical herding agents are used to contract the oil slick where the oil is then ignited and burned off. The controversy is that chemical herders are not biodegradable and stay in the marine environment for years which may further pollute the ocean. However, future chemical herders are being developed and may change how oil spills are cleaned in the future.
Researchers at Tulane University and the City University of New York recently reported in the journal, Science Advances, that they have developed an eco-friendly, plant-based, oil herder1. The oil herder is based on the plant molecule phytol and degrades in less than a month. Despite these promising results, experts warn that no ecological studies have been done on herders. Although, this potentially eco-friendly solution to oil spills cannot be used until tested, the fact that a biodegradable oil herder can even be made is an astounding discovery. Innovations such as these, that rival commercial products, force future development. This competitive circle then allows scientists to continue emitting astounding findings that benefit the environment.
Unfortunately, for the victims of the Refugio Oil Spill, the future is not yet here. The spill is still being cleaned up by state officials and is currently estimated to be almost half-way contained. Luckily, beaches are being reopened, such as El Capitan State Beach and the ecological community is moving on, damaged, but intact. As long as oil is transported there is always the risk for a spill, but with new technology and scientific development, the aftermath may become far more manageable.
By Alyssa Harmon